Like many people, my ‘favourite film’ has changed more than a few times over the years, as tastes evolve and horizons are broadened, I published my Top 25 Films of All-Time in my first book only last year, and yet I feel it may already be out-dated, things change so often, that being asked to pinpoint ‘favourite’ films makes me incredibly anxious.
For the last year or so, my number one pick has been fairly concrete, it’s Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, a title I put off watching for so long, thinking that it could never live up to expectations, yet upon watching I realised that it had thoroughly earned its reputation, but historically, several different films have held the distinction of being my favourite film, and the topic of today’s review perhaps held the distinction the longest.
I must have watched Forrest Gump for the first time when I was about 12, perhaps even earlier, but even them I was enamoured by it. I loved Tom Hanks’ character, and its slightly disjointed nature meant that it never seemed boring.
Taking a step back now, as someone who has reviewed films for a few years, I can start to see its flaws, but it still firmly holds a place in my personal Top 10 for being a kind of gateway drug to film, if you like, it was this film that made me watch stuff that people my age at the time weren’t into, it led me to dig deeper, and look where that’s gotten me, so all of you who roll your eyes at the sight of another review has this film to blame.
Forrest Gump is the story of the titular character, following his adventures from childhood to middle age, as he unwittingly plays a part in some of history’s biggest events, all the while being completely oblivious to the world around him.
The film’s main strength to me is characters, a lot come and go and signify certain points in Forrest’s life, they play their part in some periods, but not in others, while some characters remain a part of the narrative for larger periods, ranging over several years, each character, in turn, helping to explore Forrest and how he sees the world.
When I think of Forrest Gump, my mind first goes to characters like Jenny, Bubba, and Lieutenant Dan, rather than Forrest himself. This is because Forrest’s role in life is mainly as a passing observer or unwitting participant, it is these other characters that are actually largely involved in the unfolding events, and their long-term effects leave indelible marks on Forrest as a person.
Take, for instance, the character of Jenny. Yes, she is a very flawed character, but her involvement with Forrest changes him exponentially. Because of Jenny, Forrest knows what it feels like to love, and also, frequently, what it feels like to be heartbroken.
What of the story then? Well, it’s a bit scattershot, to be honest. The story covers most of the major cultural events of the 20th century, and Forrest barely notices any of it, despite his proximity to said events.
All of this is achieved with visually doctoring historical footage to include Forrest in these periods and in pre-existing events, such as footage of him meeting with JFK, and being on a chat show with John Lennon. These sections hold up remarkably well for a film that is twenty-five years old, in fact, it’s such an effective technique that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t milked to oblivion in the years following its release.
I like most of the story as a vehicle to get us invested in Forrest as a character. It really helps the effectiveness of the film’s third act to know everything he’d gone through up to that point, everyone he’d met, and everyone he’d lost.
I must admit though that on subsequent rewatches, the film does tend to drag its feet, and I don’t think it would have hurt the films pacing to cut a few of the less-important scenes, despite the varied life Forrest lives, there are parts of it that could well have been cut down without losing much from the overall story.
All of these events serve as juxtapositions though, the smaller moments make the momentous occurrences seen all the more immense, his experiences in Vietnam wouldn’t have been as intense if we hadn’t had the relative levity of his football career to put them in sharper focus.
‘Focus’ seems like a keyword here actually, as the plot has a wide variety of topics and events to cover, a lot of it is skimmed over, and lost in the shuffle. For example, we don’t get a lot of details about how he grew the ‘Bubba Gump Shrimp’ business with no experience and even less intelligence.
Also, a lot of the events Forrest stumbles into really do start to test the patience on rewatches. In a film crammed to the brim with references to real-world events, and what involvement our protagonist has on them, there are a few which really feel unnecessary, and perhaps a little bit self-congratulatory, as if the film is so pleased with itself for linking Forrest to these events, without really giving it any purpose. His passing affiliation to the Watergate scandal is perhaps the most egregious example of this.
Having said that though, the film never stops being charming, and a lot of that has to go with the leading performance by Tom Hanks. Hanks is, of course, a very talented actor and his ability on-screen shouldn’t really surprise anyone; but given how he takes to this role, taking a part which could have easily been played for laughs and making him an endearing and sympathetic figure never ceases to amaze.
In the wrong hands, Forrest could have been an archetypal idiot who stumbles through life through sheer dumb luck, but in Hanks’ hands, the character is warm and sincere, someone who knows his shortcomings, but focuses on being the best person he can be, and some moments really touch the heartstrings, such as his immortal line: ‘I may not be a smart man, but I know what love is’. The way he delivers it shows the layers of complexity to Forrest as a character, and it’s a testament to both the filmmaker and the actor that this complexity is allowed to be brought to the forefront.
That isn’t to say there aren’t moments of comedy in Forrest Gump, but they rarely feel like they’re at Forrest’s expense, they never diminish everything his character achieves, they mostly occur as a result of other people’s reactions to Forrest, or his reactions to a situation, and in hindsight, even if they’re not great, they could have been a whole lot worse.
There are flaws in Forrest Gump, that’s for certain, some of it may, understandably, be problematic to modern sensibilities, but taken as a whole as a film, it’s a bittersweet tale of a man who is always trying to be the best person he can be. He’s not the smartest, and he knows that everyone around him points this out too, but that is not what defines him. What defines him is his strength of character, and the relationships he builds along his remarkable journey.
His love for Jenny may have been misplaced, and he may not have the best brain, but Forrest certainly doesn’t have any deficiency in heart, and that transcends his character and becomes the focal point of the movie. It’s an odyssey across 20th Century America, with a heart as big as the U.S. itself. It may not be perfect, but it’s still charming, heartfelt, and, at times, bitterly soul-crushing, it stands as one of Hanks’ best performances and a true modern classic.